Before you watch “Mank,” you may want to do some homework.
The latest from director David Fincher is a movie for movie lovers — specifically lovers of “Citizen Kane,” often cited as the best film ever made. There’s an insular quality to “Mank” — playing at Lagoon Cinema on Friday before Minnesota theaters close for four weeks, and on Netflix starting Dec. 4 — that you’ll appreciate more if you’ve seen “Kane” and even more if you know its back story. But there’s something thrilling about Fincher’s unapologetic dive into the claustrophobic appeal of a movie-about-a-movie-that’s-arguably-about-the-whole-idea-of-movies.
In this passion project based on a screenplay by Fincher’s late father, Gary Oldman plays Herman Mankiewicz, a washed-up alcoholic who is spirited to a remote cabin where two babysitters will make sure he (a) doesn’t drink, and (b) does churn out the “Citizen Kane” screenplay. About one-third of “Mank” happens with him in bed, dictating his script.
The rest flashes back and forth in time to show how Mankiewicz came to Hollywood and quickly burned so many bridges that he kowtowed to director Orson Welles’ demand that he ghostwrite a screenplay for him. (Authorship of the screenplay, credited to Mankiewicz and Welles, has been the subject of debate. “Mank” sides with Mank but leaves room for Welles’ collaborative polish.)
Fincher lists “Citizen Kane” as one of his favorite movies, and he fills “Mank” with loving homages. An early shot in the cabin salutes one in “Kane” that depicts Charles Foster Kane’s childhood, aping its theatrical quality with Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland guiding our eyes with movement within the frame to indicate where we should look. (In “Mank,” lights even fade to black at the end of scenes, the way they would on stage.) One scene follows a bottle of booze Mankiewicz drops on the floor the same way “Kane” followed a dropped snow globe. And there are details such as the mansion of William Randolph Hearst (the newspaper tycoon who inspired Kane), whose enormous fireplace echoes the one you know from “Kane.”
If, that is, you do know “Citizen Kane.” For a fan of that film, this stuff is pure gold, as are jokey references to the origin of the movie’s famously mysterious “Rosebud,” which is Kane’s dying word. “Mank” also picks up the artificial, lockjaw speaking style that actors used in the 1940s, the low-fi special effects, the lush score (by “Social Network” Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and the gorgeous black-and-white visuals of “Kane.” One of the few haters of “Citizen Kane,” critic James Agee, complained of its ersatz elegance, likening it to “rhinestones and black chenille,” and darned if cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt doesn’t get that right, too.
There’s a little of the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” in “Mank’s” affectionate recapturing of a bygone movie era, but “Mank” is not as much fun, largely because Oldman delivers the quickness of one of Hollywood’s most famous wits without actually being funny. Also, there’s not much at stake in this story; it’s only a movie, albeit a classic.
As a certified “Kane”-head, I have no problem with this, but non-fans may think Fincher is replicating what Mankiewicz did: pouring his creative energy into a project that will leave many people cold.